The bridge of the Artois Columbus was divided into two sections: ammonia atmosphere and oxygen atmosphere. There was an airlock between the two–-from time to time one of the humans would need to get into the ammonia area, or one of the Phlendars might go into the oxygen part, but this was fairly unusual. Throughout the ship, transparent panels divided the two areas. Through human eyes, the ammonia area was a thin yellow fog; through Phlendar eyes, the ammonia was transparent, but the oxygen on the other side occluded the frequency that their vision system used and so was opaque to them. No matter–-Phlendars depended more on their sonar to visualize the world than they did their rudimentary and mostly useless vision system anyway.
The panel in front of Captain Rebecca Hartwig chimed; she ignored it and kept reading. Momentarily it chimed again, and she reluctantly pulled away from the book she was reading, glancing quickly over the panel to find whatever it was that the ship or one of its crew wanted. She was curled up on the large captain’s chair, a cup of tea on one of the chair’s arms and a paper plate holding the remains of a grilled cheese sandwich. It wasn’t really a book, of course–-it was a book-sized panel that she held in front of her as one would have held a book fifty years ago. She was halfway through Moby Dick, having somehow or other neglected to read it previously. It was one of those books that she knew she should read, but she hadn’t imagined in her wildest dreams that she would be enjoying it as much as she was. She found the indicator and pressed it. “What is it, Frankie?”
“Marker on Seven, Cap’n.” Frank Abbott’s flat, clipped New England voice matched his flat, clipped personality–but that was an asset in an engineer.
“How far out?”
“Eighty hundred thousand clicks.”
“And how big?” Rebecca was wondering why he was bothering her with a marker flag, and his response did not provide an answer.
“Two hundred meters, spherical.”
Well, that was big, but not unusual-–and no reason to bother the captain. “Relative speed?”
“660 meters per second, will cross our Z minus at 4500 clicks in 14 days and change.”
“Okay, well,” she rolled her eyes but tried to keep it out of her voice, “continue to monitor and let’s include it in the daily briefs in a couple of days,” she said and she returned to her book.
“Daily briefs in two days, roger that.” Rebecca thought that was all, and she was back in her book when Frankie’s voice sounded again. “Ah, Cap’n…?”
“Yeah,” she called, her eyes still on the book.
“The object is changing speed and course.”
That got Rebecca’s attention, and she went into captain-of-the-ship mode, the book set aside and forgotten. She swung her legs down and turned the chair. “Changing speed and course? This is not a perturbation?”
“Definitely not, Cap’n.”
“Gimme the feed up here,” she said and she pressed a button on her the console on the chair’s right arm. “Davey? Frankie’s got a moving marker.” She let go of the button. “You say it’s on Seven?” she said to the microphone on the panel.
“That’s affirm,” Frankie replied.
Rebecca stood up and tapped on the transparent divider. On the other side, the Phlendar on duty turned an one of its beakstalks toward the panel, emitting an ultrasonic pulse and receiving the echo to ‘look’ into the oxygen portion of the control room. A speaker came to life and a computerized voice asked “What can I do for you, Captain Hartwig?” The voice was a translation of the ultrasonic squeaks that the Phlendar’s other beakstalk was streaming into a microphone.
“Pete, we’ve got a moving marker, take a look at Seven,” she said in response. The beakstalk peering at Rebecca remained where it was while the other one moved around its own control panel.
“Yes, we see it,” the computerized voice said. The beakstalk that had been looking at her retreated into the yellow fog on the other side of the bridge.
“I’ve seen these anomalies before, Pete,” Rebecca said. “It looks like motion, but it’s going to be spin of an asymmetrical body or a lopsided interior or–-”
The Phlendar cut her off. “We’ve established communication with the marker.” The computer voice was cool, aseptic.
“We have communication now with the marker.”
“It’s a rock, Pete, I’m telling you,” Rebecca said-–but she was feeling a little less confident all of a sudden, and she flipped the close-up seat out of the panel and sat down, her hands moving over it, activating monitors.
Then in her ear, Frankie’s voice again, this time uncharacteristically high-pitched: “Cap’n the marker is turning to reduce the Z separation, and it’s speeding up.” His voice shifted distinctly towards alarm as he pronounced those last words. “Z separation is now 800 kilometers and the close rate is up to 2200 meters per second and rising!”
“Pete, why is it turning to close?” she said. No response. She reached over and slapped her hand on the transparent barrier between the two atmospheres. “Pete! You awake in there? It’s closing the Z and accelerating.”
Frankie chimed in again. “Z separation is 100 clicks, close rate is–-Jesus! Close rate is 8 clicks per second and rising. Intercept, 41 hours!” He was fully alarmed now.
Through the yellow haze, Pete’s beakstalk appeared again and waved slightly back and forth as he perceived that the far hatch was opening and someone was entering. Rebecca looked up and waved the crewman in. “Abe, get on the link to Pete, will you?” she said, and he moved to comply, flipping out the close-up seat on his own station and moving his hands over the controls. “Pete says he’s in communication with the marker.”
“Really?” Abe looked over and considered Pete. “You’re talking to it?”
The computer voice sounded calm and measured, as it was programmed to do. “Captain Hartwig, we advise you turn 40 degrees X, 21 degrees Y, 5 degrees Z and make a 440-second burn at 91 percent,” the Pheldar said. “This should be done immediately, but before N plus 68 seconds.”
“Burn?” Rebecca said. “Why?”
“The marker will give chase,” the computer voice continued. “If we burn before N plus 64, we can escape it.” Rebecca knew what the Phlendar meant by the ‘N plus 64″ language: that the burn must begin in the next 64 seconds. She also knew that the Phlendar knew a lot more about alien life that she did, and that he was to be trusted in these matters. She punched a button. “Frankie! Ninety-one percent burn in 60 seconds.”
“Burn? Where are we going?” he responded.
“Shut up and start up!” she ordered. “I’m sending you the numbers now. Burn in 52 seconds, start a countdown.”
Frankie’s “Aye, Cap’n” was drowned out by her next order. “Abe, link yourself to Pete. Pete, you steer on this.” The ship’s computer voice came on: “Burn in 47, 46, 45….” It continued to count down above the activity in the room.
“Pete’s got the panel now,” Abe said.
“You with us, Pete?” Rebecca said as calmly as she could.
Frankie’s voice sounded in her headset again. “Ready for burn, Cap’n. Ninety-one percent for 440 seconds.” The computer voice was counting calmly “…39…38…37….”
Rebecca punched the ship-wide channel. “Crew, this is the captain. We will burn in 35 seconds for 440 at 91. Strap in now, I say again, strap in now for burn, 440 at 91.” She clicked off. “Pete, you with us okay.”
Then Pete’s translator spoke. “That’s affirmative, Captain. We are ready for the burn. Trajectories on your display now.”
Rebecca clicked over and took a look at the trajectories, present and burn, of her own ship against the trajectory of the marker. It was steering–-that was clear, and the acceleration had every sign of the intelligence of a predator. She pushed the intercom to Pete. “Burn trajectory approved,” she said.
“Twenty-eight…27…26…,” the computer voice droned.
Rebecca moved back to the ship-wide channel, and then her headset was full of voices reporting status. “Stores and supplies, strapped,” one said; “Engineering, strapped,” said another; “Navigation, we’re strapped,” said a third. Everyone checked in, and Rebecca retreated to her captain’s chair and activated the restraint system, which clacked and fastened over her.
“Pete, you strapped in okay?” she said.
“Affirmative,” came the reply.
“Okay, here goes,” she said, half to herself as the computer counted down, “…3…2…1….” There was no zero; instead, there was a roar and the ship jerked backward, Rebecca jostling in the restraints, as she knew all the other crew members were doing. She closed her eyes, pushed her breath out forcefully against the acceleration, and waited for it to be over.